Seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film, “A Most Wanted Man”, reminded the audience, yet again, of the collective loss of what could have been. In recent years, we have seen the posthumously released films of Heath Ledger, James Gandolfini, and Mr. Hoffman: all died too young, yet left a rich legacy of work (and the death yesterday of Robin Williams, whose manic energy and innate intelligence informed all his roles, brought this home once more).
“A Most Wanted Man” was unwieldy, poorly shot at times, and clunky in its execution. But you were riveted by Hoffman’s performance. You knew too much going in, you knew less going out. His breathing was labored, his hands swollen, his girth more than you remembered. Was this the character, or a man struggling publicly with what most people are allowed to do in private? According to the media timeline, he had relapsed after twenty years, having found sobriety at twenty-two; he died six months shy of his forty-seventh birthday. It was painful to watch, actor and role melding together, and wonder how much was on the page, and how much he brought to the character (perhaps unintentionally) by virtue of his state of mind and body. If this noteworthy performance was delivered under assumed duress, what possibilities remained, if he had been able to conquer his demons…yet again?
The performer is public property, even if he chooses to avoid the spotlight when he’s not “on stage”. He cannot work without an audience; he needs them to witness his process and feel its effect. He cannot function in a vacuum, and self-affirmation is an oxymoron. As someone close to me said, when you see a performers out in public, they are “shiny”. But that shine is impossible to maintain 24 /7. The world that allows them to be “dull” gets smaller and smaller; the expectation grows, the standard of excellence rises, the stakes get higher. In hindsight, Greta Garbo’s decision to leave the business in her mid-thirties was brilliantly prescient and self-protective. She lived to be eighty-five, on her terms, not according to the vagaries of “the business”.
An actor is a complex organism, unfathomable to us civilians. The boundaries get blurred with every part they play; only they know the depths they must plumb to give us what we see on the stage, or on the screen. We walk out after ninety minutes, or two and a half hours, and return to our reality; hopefully we have been altered by what we’ve experienced. They walk away from giving us their all, tapping into an internal place known only to them (and perhaps to their therapists). We pick the kids up at the sitter’s; an actor picks his soul up off the floor.